Over the past few months, no, years, I have been reflecting on what it means to have a healthy spirituality.
Now, to me spirituality is the thing that breathes life into you. And more than that, hopefully your spirituality is connected to the deep life of God while simultaneously anchoring your lofty ideals. But what connotes “healthy” spirituality?
There are a number of reasons why I have engaged this question as long as I have and to the depths I have tried to take it. I could say that it is because of external circumstances, of asking why church folk around me don’t seem healthier but I should rather just emphasize the lack of transformation I see in myself.
I feel as though over the past few years I have found that churches love to preach and teach obedience or right living but VERY RARELY do they encourage people to ask the question of “Why did you do that?” Or, in another phrasing, “Do you know why your favorite sin is your favorite sin?” Granted, I made that question up myself, but I cannot say that I have heard its theme or emphasis put out there in Christian circles.
So here’s the deal.
Why is it that the church doesn’t seem to create many “transformed” people? It may depend on your definition of the word “transformed”, but I have a working theory.
“Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Me,” is one of the most important passages in the New Testament. However, that famous statement is NOT the same thing as, “Deny or repress your issues, pick up your cross and follow me.”
To emphasize “obedience” without reflection is missing something drastic. We fail to remember the wisdom of the past when people like St. Isaac the Syriac said “If the roots are holy, then the branches are holy.”
If there is anything to be learned from Christian spirituality, its that the unconditional grace and love of God gives us the courage and the strength to do some honest self work, to admit our shadows, call them for what they are, and move on. I have personally seen the destruction that can happen when a person allows themselves to never admit their shadows. Unfortunately, poor understandings of Christian spirituality can enable people’s denial and repression of their real issues.
Take for instance the notion of “self”. To “deny yourself” does not mean that you never think about yourself or reflect on your own life. To understand “deny yourself” as “I shall think of myself less often, or hopefully not at all,” is tragically missing the point. But to understand “deny yourself” as “I will shut down my pride, my ego, my need for self-importance and preservation” is the very call on every one of us.
When we name, expose, and cut out our pride, ego, and need for self-importance and preservation, we finally are able to give our whole lives an honest look.
To think that “Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me,” means that we should ignore, deny, or repress our issues is a perfect case of our ego hijacking good spirituality for its own uses. It is a clear cut case of our own shadow-sides making a “virtue” out of avoiding the real problem.
I say this because the real problem is not obedience. How is it possible that we miss this so often? Obedience is still the external issue, the thing that can be qualitatively measured by those outside of ourselves. The real issue is the core motivation, the disordered loves, the heart that is addicted to what it knows is bad for the whole person. And isn’t this the power of the recovery movement? The first step of recovery is admitting you have a problem!
When we deny our pride, our ego, our need for self-importance and preservation, we become whole persons. This is because our ego loves to be separate and superior, but if we deny our selves in this proper sense, then we choose to be all-together and humbly human.
So let’s do a modern translation, shall we?
“Deny your pride, your ego, your need for self-importance and preservation and pick up your cross and follow Me.”
Now that reads a bit different, huh? Not only that, but I personally feel as though such an interpretation opens the door for more transformative rather than repressive modes of living. But all this is scary because we don’t want to lose ourselves, we want to maintain the person we have become. And, we don’t want to give up the person we have become because this person has learned how to navigate this world.
Fortunate for us, there is also wisdom from that same chapter in Matthew, Mark and Luke…
“Lose your life and you will save it.”
Maybe the church doesn’t create many transformed people because it has forgotten how to teach and challenge people to lose the very way in which they live their lives of comfort, denial, performance, etc. But there is always hope, there is always the chance that we will stumble our way into living more whole and integrated lives of whatever is this mystery of faith.